I’ve come to realize that the design process often starts in the wrong place. We are suckers for the details, and don’t get me wrong, I love the details. Poring over lovely typefaces, perfecting a curve, thinking about special techniques and finishes, and selecting just the perfect hue of lavender-gray make me very happy. While these are all critical to a beautiful end result, starting here doesn’t help clients solve their design problems.
Here’s why we need to Design Backwards:
Know Your End Goal
The number one design challenge for brands from beauty & prestige to mass market and grocery store products is to stand out in store, so it only makes sense to start from the shelf and work backwards.
Consumers should instinctively want to reach for brands because they are magnetically attracted to them from 10 feet away. This is commonly referred to as having a powerful “shelf set,” and is the nirvana that every brand manager is seeking to achieve. There are usually only 5-10 seconds to make that critical first impression.
Get to the Store & Recreate the Customer’s Shopping Experience
(Do this with a shopping cart, walking quickly— preferably with a toddler or cellphone vying for your attention.)
What aisle is your product in?
What colors and shapes dominate and catch your attention within the first 10 seconds?
Where does your product live on shelf and how expansive is the shelf presence?
Some brands have just 2 or 3 facings and sit at the bottom of the shelf—in this case color, shape, and bold branding need to work extra hard to catch people’s attention. Pert Plus is a great example of a brand that works hard to stand out, but still has design integrity. If your brand has numerous SKUs and a bigger presence, it’s still relying on color to stand out and be identifiable—think of making a choice between Coca Cola “red” and Pepsi “blue.” Color helps people find their zone within the store.
Create a Mock Shelf Set
Back at the studio, create a digital version of the shopping experience. This allows you to see how different colors, shapes and branding treatments interact with the environment around them—test ideas in very rough sketch form. It’s not only choosing a key brand color that can help your brand and design be more identifiable, but understanding how surrounding brands differentiate between variants.
Creating a navigation system that is clear and easy to see from a three-foot distance makes it simple to shop, and will keep people coming back more often. The test is when you can send a friend to the store and ask them to bring you back “the blue one,” and they get it right the first time.
Crafting the Best Design
Once you have a clear understanding of how people need to find your product on shelf and what’s going to help it stand out, then it’s time to start designing.
As you craft elements like logo type treatments, graphic elements, icons and details, check them at key stages by placing them back into the shelf set and show this first at critiques and client meetings, before you present a single beautiful package. This is the stage where graphic design and strategy meet to deliver the brand’s position and message clearly—but remember that story will never be heard if people aren’t drawn to pick up the package—and that requires designing backwards.
As Creative Director at Beardwood&Co, Sarah Williams’ adventures span from telling the punk rock story of legendary CBGB’s, to delivering girly glamour for Bath & Body Works, and channeling her inner scientist with Pfizer’s next blockbuster brand. Williams began her career in branding at Landor developing a new national airline brand, Song, and repositioning Blackberry for a mass market. She also conducted major branding projects for the NYC Olympic Bid, Burger King and Clairol. Williams joined Beardwood&Co as Creative Director to build an energized studio environment where designers could thrive on cross-pollination of ideas and diverse projects. Contact her at: email@example.com.
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